Home Remodeling Shrub Transplanting

The nurseryman 'How & Why' of moving shrubbery

By: Sandy Feather 2007
Penn State Extension

Q. We have to move some shrubs in preparation for an addition to our house. They include two oakleaf hydrangeas, a huge rhododendron, and several deciduous azaleas. What is the best time to move them? Is there anything special we should do to ensure their survival?

A. It is best to move woody plants while they are dormant. Late winter or very early spring is ideal in our climate. It is best to have them moved before deciduous plants start to leaf out. That way they can get started on re-establishing a root system before those water-losing leaves come out and demand more water than their much-reduced root systems can provide.

Carbohydrate Reserves

The worst time to move them is while they are leafing out, when they are in full bloom, or if they are severely stressed by drought, or insect or disease problems. That is because they are using their carbohydrate reserves in order to push new growth and bloom, or to survive stressful situations. The added stress of severing a large portion of their roots and moving them to a new site can be overwhelming.


Have their new site prepared so that you can dig them and replant them immediately. The new location should provide shade from hot afternoon sun and well-drained soil. None of the plants you listed will tolerate poorly drained soil for long. Have the soil tested so that you can till in fertilizer and soil amendments prior to planting. It would be ideal if you create a new bed that will encompass all of these plants rather than planting them individually. That way, you can till up the entire area and amend it with several inches of organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure, along with fertilizer and pH amendments as recommended by your soil test.


Spring Transplanting

If you move them this spring, you will not have time to root prune them. Root pruning is the practice of gradually severing roots around the circumference of the rootball you plan to dig prior to actually digging it. This allows fine feeder roots to fill in the rootball, which helps reduce transplant shock. The fall prior to transplanting is the ideal time to root prune. You can root prune one-third of the circumference, wait a month and root prune the second third, wait another month and root prune the final third. Or you can root prune around the entire circumference by sticking your spade in every other space, so that it looks like a dotted line. Wait a month, then root prune the spaces left the first time around. A spade's depth is sufficiently deep for root pruning. However, there is no point trying to root prune now, since root development ceases when soil temperatures fall below about 40-degrees F. You might be able to start in early March and get them partially root pruned prior to moving them in late March or early April, but I am not sure the resulting root development will be sufficient to warrant your effort.

Balled and burlapped pine tree
Removing the bindings from
a commercially dug pine

When you dig them, take as much of the root system as humanly possible. Transplant them immediately into the new bed. Make sure you do not plant them any deeper than they were growing before. Water them in thoroughly, and mulch with two to three inches of shredded hardwood bark out to the ends of their branches. Be sure the mulch does not physically contact the stems of the shrubs. Check them several times a week, and provide supplemental water as needed. You do not want to overwater them, but you should never allow them to dry out completely, either. Stick your finger in the soil around the base of each new transplant to see if the soil is moist. If it is, do not water; if it is dry, go ahead and water. As they become established, you can begin water more deeply and less frequently.

Pruning First

You can prune the shrubs back a little if necessary to make them more manageable (especially the huge rhododendron), but it is no longer recommended that woody plants be pruned severely when they are transplanted. Horticulturists used to believe that pruning the top growth back hard at transplanting helped balance the severely reduced root system. However, current research has shown that transplants need as many leaves as possible to photosynthesize and produce the carbohydrates needed to re-grow a complete root system.


Moving a Holly

Transplanting in Late Fall

Plants for Street Lawns


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